Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed yesterday to defend disputed remote islands from threats by China after a series of confrontations that have raised the risk of an armed clash.
“The security environment surrounding our country is increasingly becoming more severe as we face provocation to our territorial rights,” Abe said.
“I will take the lead to stand up against the present danger and protect the people’s lives and assets, as well as our land, the seas and the air at all costs,” he added.
His comments, made in a speech to Japan’s Self-Defense Forces in the country’s south, apparently referred to China’s growing presence near the disputed islands, called the Senkakus by Japan, and Diaoyu (釣魚) in China.
The uninhabited islands are controlled by Japan but also claimed by China, and by Taiwan, which calls them the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台).
Japan’s nationalization of three of the islands in September last year triggered violent protests across China, hurting Japanese companies there and the economy.
China has sent surveillance ships regularly to waters near the islands, and aircraft from the two sides have trailed each other, raising the risk of missteps that could trigger a clash. Japan has recently launched diplomatic efforts to ease tensions, with China-friendly officials visiting Beijing for talks.
Abe’s government last week endorsed a budget bill for this year that included ￥4.75 trillion (US$51 billion) in proposed defense spending partly aimed at beefing up Japan’s coastal and marine surveillance around the islands. The government also plans to beef up coast guard deployments in the area.
Later yesterday, Abe was to visit the regional Japanese Coast Guard office on the southern island of Okinawa, which is in charge of patrolling the waters around the disputed islands, to meet officers.
During his Okinawa visit, Abe also met with Governor Hirokazu Nakaima and promised efforts to speed up the relocation of US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which Japan and the US had decided to close more than a decade ago.
The base, located in a heavily populated area of Okinawa, is still in operation because a replacement site has not been readied.
The Futenma issue is expected to be among the main topics Abe plans to discuss with US President Barack Obama during his planned US trip this month.
More than half of the roughly 50,000 US troops stationed in Japan are based on Okinawa.